Rail 624: Adonis sparks the electrification debate

Senior figures in the railways often acknowledge that there are failings in the way the industry is structured and accept that there is a need for change. But they always argue that this must be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary because of the upheavals caused by trying to change things too quickly.
They did not, however, reckon on Lord Adonis. While he may not want to admit that he has rocked the boat so hard that bits have fallen off, there is no doubt that the new Transport Secretary has effected a complete revolution in the government’s handling of the railways. Even before he brought out his electrification plan, he had stormed through the industry initiating radical change. He has taken a tighter rein on franchising, rejecting criticisms of micromanagement while rapping Stagecoach over its ticket office closure plan and effectively foreclosing on the National Express East Coast franchise. Then he went round the country on a rover, ending up complaining about its price increase, and, as a result of his tour, he has appointed a pair of station ‘czars’ to develop a coherent approach to their management. He has rescued plans for a second High Speed line that had been sidelined by his predecessors and now his electrification plan is not so much a U-turn from the government’s 30 year strategy published two years ago as a V-turn, a complete change of direction that he wants to ensure is irreversible so that it will have to be adopted by a new government.
This is not evolution, but revolution, a completely new approach to railways with the drive coming neither the private sector, nor the Department, but from a politician. The synergies within the electrification paper could only have been found with someone with a deep knowledge and understanding of the railways and the ability to set them out. There was luck, too. Had the paper been delayed even by a few months, the order for the diesels to provide extra capacity in the Thames Valley would have gone through and that could have been used to kill off any electrification for the next 30 years.
All the pieces fit into the jigsaw. Crossrail electrification will now obviously be extended to Reading, ERTMS (the new European-wide standard for signalling) will be fitted on the line, the major refurbishment of Reading station will now accommodate electrification and a home will be found for the 319s that would have been mothballed, with ten years useful life in them, when the new rolling stock for Thameslink is introduced. Indeed, the paper comes close to creating an integrated railway policy and is a remarkable contrast from the disjointed and contradictory Strategy White Paper which was the work of a civil servant, Mark Lambirth who was allowed by a failure of leadership from the politicians to pursue his own agenda of eschewing investment by ostensibly supporting a technology that has not yet been developed. The Paper was published just as Ruth Kelly took over from Douglas Alexander and therefore did not receive the sufficient ministerial scrutiny, or else it would surely not have contained the ludicrous notion that electrification was not worth while because the technology of fuel cell trains would take over within 15 years. Now Adonis has told me that he accepts the White Paper was ‘wrong’ and that the benefits of electrification are irrefutable.
Of course there is some PR spin in the paper. Adonis says that the electrification will pay for itself over 40 years but these types of calculations, over such a long time span, are tenuous if not entirely spurious. Sure, there is a good ‘business case’ given the savings as electrification will reduce carbon emissions and cut costs. However, many of its benefits cannot be gained through the fare box, but are, in the economists’ term,’ externalities’ which accrue to society at large.
It is sad that in Britain we still have to play this game, pretending that the railways are a conventional business where investment has to pay for itself when, in fact, they are a service which bring wide benefits to society. When I was in France recently, I picked up a copy of Paris Match which had a series of adverts for SNCF, the French state owned railways. One stated that hundreds of stations were being made accessible for people with disabilities. Then the ad said, crudely translated, ‘there is no business case for this. It is costing us lots of money but we are doing it because we believe it is part of our duty to open up our stations to all.’ Another ad argued much the same about fitting solar panels on station roofs. It was so refreshing to see that this was a society with the confidence to say that providing social benefits did not have to be justified with crude business cases but rather it was something that morally and ethically was right.
The tone of the media coverage of the electrification paper perhaps reflects why those supporting such clearly useful investment have to be so defensive. I happened to be away for both this announcement and the East Coast franchise collapse two weeks previously and whereas I received at least 25 calls from the media over that debacle, I had barely half a dozen over this piece of good news. One of those was a stroppy BBC Radio Four reporter who only wanted to know ‘the reasons to oppose electrification’ and was completely uninterested in my attempts to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, for once this was a bit of good news about the railways. He asked about towns that might lose their direct service to London and the disruption the work might cause. I put him right, but interestingly did not appear on the programme.
The negative slant on much of the rather scant coverage may have been a reflection of the lack of credibility of the government but demonstrated clear bias against both Labour and the railways. The Times, for example, headlined its piece with ‘six years of delays in £1.1bn rail upgrade’, spotlighting the need to adapt bridges and tunnels, rather than highlighting the ‘sparks effect’ which improve the lot of passengers, perhaps because it wanted to balance the fact that it had an article by Lord Adonis. In France, I suspect the coverage would have been overwhelmingly positive, reflecting the fact that passengers will benefit enormously from the investment.
There are, nevertheless, some possible downsides. Scrapping plans to buy diesel trains for the Thames Valley may lead to more overcrowding though, of course, with passenger growth stalled that will be less serious than had the recession not occurred. There are issues over whether the hybrid trains which will be needed to run services beyond the wires are a sensible solution. There are questions over whether increasing the debt of Network Rail even further is sustainable. And while the Liverpool – Manchester line is being electrified, the delay to the Midland Main Line will be felt badly locally, although in truth it is questionable whether Network Rail had the capability to undertake two huge and one smaller electrification projects simultaneously.
It is, too, a clever piece of politics. The Tories whose response to the announcement was slow and feeble, will find it difficult to delay a scheme that will help many of their voters in the area covered by the Great Western.
Make no mistake, though. This paper shows that the railways are controlled by the government in much the way they were in the days of British Rail. And rightly so. The money is coming from taxpayers – albeit disguised as Network Rail increasing its debt – and railways need the kind of across the board thinking that has gone into this paper. By working through the implications of electrifying the Great Western line right through to the cascade of rolling stock and the implementation of ERTMS the paper is genuinely strategic unlike the so called strategy paper issued two years ago. The problem is the new paper is the work of a hyper-active minister rather than of civil servants who would never have had the ability and imagination to produce such a coherent piece of work, and that without him, there will be a terrible hiatus in rail policy.
And that’s the rub. By this time next year, Adonis will have gone, unless David Cameron is discovered in an Edwina Currie moment, an unlikely scenario. It is highly improbable that any new transport secretary will manage to combine both his knowledge and his determination to make things happen in this way. Through his electrification plan, Adonis has become a one man British Railways Board, overseeing the industry as a whole and planning accordingly. As I have set out many times before in this column, career civil servants in postings of three years in the Department for Transport will never be able to take a suitably long term view. The momentum he has created must not be lost and in order to ensure it is not frittered away by his successors, he needs to create a powerful railways agency that will carry on his work after his departure, or otherwise it risks being wasted.

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